SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- By proposing the option of postponing U.S. joint military drills until after the Winter Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is signaling a clear break from the "maximum pressure" allies in Tokyo and Washington seek to apply against North Korea.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries regularly conduct joint exercises starting in late February or early March that last about two months. The large-scale drills involve U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and the most advanced jet fighters.
The drills, conducted in and around South Korea, also serve as a show of force against Pyongyang. The North Korean regime considers the training dry runs for an invasion or a nuclear attack. Tensions on the peninsula perennially intensify whenever the spring exercises approach.
But South Korea is also hosting the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang Feb. 9-25, and is urging the North to participate. Moon sees the event as a good opportunity to extend an olive branch.
"It is possible for South Korea and the U.S. to review the possibility of postponing the drill," Moon told American network NBC News in an interview Tuesday. "I have made such suggestion to the U.S., and the U.S. is currently reviewing."
The presidential Blue House qualified that statement Wednesday by saying the postponement is possible only if North Korea ceases all provocations between now and the end of the games, and establishes conditions for dialogue.
Moon hopes the Winter Olympics will provide an opening to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and throughout Northeast Asia. Delaying the military exercises would offer an incentive for the North to compete in the games, goes the thinking. Pyongyang has yet to clarify whether it will participate in the Olympics.
This trajectory also dovetails with the "four principles" the South Korean leader agreed to with President Xi Jinping of China: rejecting war in the Koreas, calling for a peaceful resolution through dialogue, pursuing denuclearization of the peninsula and improving North-South relations.
A break in the united front
For Washington, the joint maneuvers form a key part of the "maximum pressure" campaign against North Korea for developing its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
"These exercises have been ongoing for many years. They are carried out on a scheduled basis," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Tuesday. "We announced them in advance. ... I'm not aware of any plans to change what is scheduled."
The military drills "are to maintain our readiness and to be able to make sure that we are ready in the event of a worst-case scenario," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the same day, further distancing Washington from Moon's statement.
Should the U.S. accede to South Korea's wishes to postpone the exercises during what Moon calls the "Peace Olympics," this could raise doubts over the hard line it has drawn against the North. President Donald Trump is already wary of Moon and his conciliatory approach. It will be a tall order to get Washington to agree to the suspension.
In South Korea, the leading opposition, the conservative Liberty Korea Party, said Wednesday that strongly applying pressure through the bilateral alliance is the only way to resolve the North Korean nuclear threat. The party also denounced Moon's proposal as bowing to China, which aims to halt Pyongyang's provocations along with the U.S.-South Korean joint exercises.
Moon maintains that the postponement all depends on North Korea. But the isolated state has called for a complete halt of the allied drills, so it is not clear how far a temporary suspension will go in easing inter-Korean tensions.
"We want the Pyeongchang Olympics to be successful and have committed to [South Korea] that we will aid their success," the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command said Wednesday in a statement. "We, as allies, are committed to an alliance decision on the exercises."